The panic over loneliness seems to have reached a fever pitch. Day after day, new articles pop up in the media, declaring that we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. The U.K. even appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
Scholars, policy-makers, and other people with all the right intentions are trying to come up with ways to reach out to people who are socially isolated and bring them back into the fold. The thing is, though, that social isolation is not the same as loneliness. Some people don’t want to be nudged into socializing more. They like their time alone. By some objective measures (such as the small number of people they count as part of their social circle, or the fact that they live alone), they may be categorized as socially isolated, but that doesn’t mean they are lonely.
Loneliness is a feeling. People experience it when the relationships they have do not measure up to the relationships they want. The discrepancy can be a matter of having too few people in your life, or too few of the kinds of relationships you want (such as deep, meaningful ones), or both. But whatever the nature of that gap, it leaves you hurting from the loneliness.
Fortunately, scholars are becoming more sensitive to the difference between being socially isolated and feeling lonely. In a 2017 article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Nancy Newall and Verena Menec looked at what social scientists have had to say about people in the four different categories formed by people who are or are not isolated, and are or are not lonely.
Most relevant is the category of people who count, in some way, as socially isolated, but who do not feel lonely. The authors had two questions about them: (1) Who are these people? And (2) What should we do about them?
Newall and Menec did not collect any new data for this article. They were reviewing what others have found.
(1) Isolated but not lonely: Who are these people?
People who seem to be socially isolated yet do not feel lonely are often people who like being alone. They choose their solitude.
Some describe themselves as “loners” – and they mean that in a good way. Others say that they are introverted or shy.
Some of them do have people in their lives. Maybe, for example, they have a very small number of people with whom they share a close relationship. Or the people in their lives may not be close to them at all – maybe they are just neighbors they know casually. Whatever the status of the people in their lives, the key point is that they are satisfied with that status.
In one study, people who had no children were especially likely to be in the group of people who were isolated but not lonely. Although they were never asked whether not having children was a choice, it would make sense that people who like their time alone would be likely to choose not to have children, even in the face of strong social pressures and norms that celebrate parenting.
Over the course of our lives, most of us lose people we once knew. They die, or move away, or we just grow apart, emotionally. People who like being alone may make less of an effort to expand their social networks after a loss. They are not as distressed as others by a shrinking social circle.
People who are isolated but not lonely are often happy. But even when they are not, they do not pin their sadness on loneliness. For example, one socially isolated man said that he did feel a bit depressed, but that was because he had developed a health problem that restricted his mobility, and he really missed the activities he had always loved, such as gardening and taking long walks.
Newall and Menec added one last possible characteristic of people who are isolated but not lonely. Maybe, the author suggested, they just lowered their standards. The authors do not seem to have found any research in support of that characterization. I guess they were just not going to close their discussion of people who like being alone without throwing a bit of shade at them.
(2) What should be done about people who are isolated but not lonely?
Remember, we are in the midst of a loneliness panic. The authors opened their article by reviewing claims that social isolation and loneliness constitute public health risks. They have good intentions, and wonder what to do about these people who are socially isolated but have no complaints about that.
In their discussion of that dilemma, they said, “We know that socially isolated individuals are at greater risk of health-related problems.” With that in mind, they wonder whether it would be helpful to create “an education campaign designed to show the health value of having a larger robust network?”
So they are going to knock on my door and say, “Make more friends or you are going to drop dead”?
I have some problems with the research findings on social isolation. Sure, they show that social isolation can be linked to health risks. But what those studies do not do is look separately at people who, say, live alone because they want to and people who are left living alone because their spouse just died and they are distraught.
Something else these studies never do (because they can’t) is randomly assign people to be socially isolated or socially connected. This is a point about research methodology. If you can randomly assign people to different living conditions, then the people in the two groups are likely to be similar to each other in every way except for their living conditions. If you can’t do that, then the isolated and the connected people might differ from each other in other ways (such as age, wealth, health, social class, education, personality, or access to resources). Then, if socially isolated people have shorter lives, it might be because of some of those other factors (such as less access to resources) and not because of their isolation. For example, if they could get what they need and still live alone, then they might live just as long as the people who are not socially isolated.
Maybe making resources more available is the answer. Instead of trying to persuade people who like their time alone that they really should socialize more because otherwise they are going to get sick and die, maybe there should be more ways for them to get the help they need when they need it.
A lot of cheesy commercials have been made for health-alert buttons and similar devices (“Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”), but that sort of option, advertised in a classier way, is not a bad start. A whole different approach is the Village movement, which is a way of helping people to stay in their own homes as long as possible, while still having access to practical and maybe social support when they need it. Those kinds of options, I think, are the way to go.